Liev Schreiber shines as the haplessly delusional boxer Chuck Wepner
It isn’t easy being a crummy low-life. It’s a dirty, sleazy, conniving, rude and superficial existence. From constantly disappointing your family to endlessly encountering misfortune, being a bozo sure does suck. And no one can tell you that better than former heavyweight contender Chuck Wepner. But like all downtrodden stories, that downfall didn’t happen overnight.
Wepner-was never a standout boxer. The New Jersey-native was mainly a stepping stone for the more talented and imposing figures of boxing. From Sonny Liston to George Foreman, Wepner fought many of the greats of his generation. He lost to a great deal of them–badly. Liston knocked Wepner around so badly that it’s purported the poor man required 72 stitches to sew his face back up leading to his Bayonne Bleeder moniker. While fighters like Liston and Foreman went on to be the heroes of their life stories, Wepner never achieved that title in his. Instead, the Bayonne Bleeder became yet another knocked-out fighter in the montage sequences of the heavyweight champions’ illustrious careers.
The undistinguished boxer’s biggest highlight was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fight Muhammad Ali. Paid 100,000 dollars compared to Ali’s 1.5 million dollars, Wepner accepted the job for it was the largest amount he had ever been paid. But alas, while the Bayonne Bleeder lasted a whopping fifteen rounds–inspiring “Rocky” along the way–the fight was but a fleeting moment in a lifetime of screw-ups. In a matter of years, Wepner went from being one-of-three people to knock the formidable Ali to the canvas to snorting eight-balls of cocaine while driving to an ill-fated “Rocky II” audition.
Schreiber stupendously showcases a Wepner that is both hilariously delusions and yet heartbreakingly pitiful. He’s a walking dichotomy, acting both timid and braggadocious. In many ways, Wepner is a tragic character–in part thanks to Schreiber’s spellbinding interpretation of Wepner. From the sadly hopeful twinkle in his eyes to his coke-fueled blunders, Schreiber pulls-off a masterful showcase of acting in a film he’s been involved in since inception.
This film relies heavily on the deeply flawed characterization of Chuck Wepner. He is pathetic man who pusillanimously hides behind his brute strength and iron jaw. He lives in a fantasy world that is gaudy, superficial and lacking depth–much like the “Rocky” image he so desperately attempts to live up to. Schreiber showcases a man who is continuously chipping away at his self-esteem and legacy. Coupled with a brilliant cast including Ron Perlman in what might be his best performance yet and the forever-charming Naomi Watts, “Chuck” is a character-driven film that expertly showcases its reliance on that.
Furthermore, the astute inclusion of comedians Jim Gaffigan (“Igby Goes Down”) and Michael Rapaport (“Sully”) rounds off this drama-heavy cast. Gaffigan’s turn as the dim-witted, starry-eyed best friend and Rapaport’s increasingly dramatic showings signal the continued advent of stand-up comics in dramatic films. From Bob Odinkirk in “Better Call Saul” to Louis C.K. in “Trumbo” a slew of stand-up comics have begun staking their claim in drama. It appears Gaffigan is set to join that dramatic troupe in his wonderfully innocuous showing of a man that is almost unfathomably more desperate for fame than his idol/friend Chuck.
While some could point out to “Chuck” recycles many common boxer tropes as being clichéd, the movie’s postmodern self-reflexivity informs us of the fact that it realizes its own sweet flaws. From the film’s nominative title mimicking “Rocky” to Wepner’s constant desire to be the movie version of himself, “Chuck” is a shrewdly well-crafted film that seems to scratch at its own self-realization. The film’s frequent allusions to “Requiem for a Heavyweight” (1962) and “Raging Bull” (1980) seem pronounced and even literal at times. It appears that Philippe Falardeau’s newest feature looks to years past for narrative and stylistic inspiration while introducing a fresh new perspective. The downfall of a fighter has seldom ever been this brutal, funny and pathetic all at the same time.
“Chuck” screened the film at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival.